Nickie said, ‘I doubt it. People are pretty forgiving when it comes to family. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own…’
All Families are Psychotic
I’ve been a Douglas Coupland fan since Generation X came out 15 years ago. The Vancouver, BC, native has an entertaining and addicting writing style. He uses seemingly contradictory images to evoke clarity, and rarely fails to amuse.
In “All Families are Psychotic” Coupland continues to explore his losers are winners and winners are losers themes. Like in most of his books, the pristine middle- and upper-class families are shown to be a complete mess. Those with strong egos are similarly vilified. Generally, the cleaner the house, nicer the car, and more “proper” one of Coupland’s characters is, the more likely they are to be shown as depraved or destroyed in the end.
Coupland’s heroes tend to be the Noble Loser who lives on the fringes of mainstream Canadian or American society. They may be somewhat shady. They have done bad things in the past. But they mean well. They are struggling to survive, and, in their own way, do the right thing.
Coupland often throws in a supernatural character, or a dead character, or a character that should be dead. Or in some cases and alternate reality altogether. There’s less of that in this book, however.
This book is the weakest Coupland book I read. There is still the wonderful use of language. There is still a nice focus on character. The plot, however, is terrible. Rather than focus on the story of the families in this book, Coupland throws in a zany caper that has the family member zipping all over the state of Florida while they coincidentally keep running into one another.
If you like Coupland, or would like to explore the works of the eponymous Generation X author, skip this book for now. Focus instead on Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma, Miss Wyoming, and “Hey Nostradamus”. They will be more rewarding.
Before I get into the story, I want to mention the punctuation. In Generation X, Coupland and his publisher took a unique approach to the layout of the book. All Families uses a traditional layout, but some alternative punctuation. Coupland ditched quote marks (“) in favor of apostrophes (‘) whenever he quotes a character. When the character is quoting someone else, Coupland uses italics instead of apostrophes. I don’t know if this bothers me. It doesn’t really add to the experience, but isn’t a major distraction either.
The plot focuses on the Drummond family. Ted and Janet have three grown children and are divorced. Sarah was born with only one hand because her mother took Thalidomide while pregnant, before it was banned. Wade is the second child. He is the independent, rebellious child who left home young and lived a rather shady life. The story opens with Wade in jail after a bar fight. Brian, the youngest is the weakest child of the family. After three failed suicide attempts, he feels a perpetual black cloud over his head. The family, along with their varied spouses and significant others, are in Florida for the launch of the space shuttle, where Sarah is a crew member. We quickly learn that several of them are HIV positive and suffering from a variety of symptoms while maintaining a complex pill ritual.
After introducing the family in cheap hotels, jail, and generally a disheveled manner, Coupland contrasts them with the Brunswick family – the family of one of Sarah’s shuttle crewmates.
The perfect suburban life style and family are completely alien to the Drummonds. While Sarah was a great student, education was not really a priority for the Drummonds.
Bryan said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been in a library.’ His voice was empty of any ironic trace.
‘I have,’ Wade said. ‘In Las Vegas, when I became sick. They’re so weird, aren’t they? I mean , all these…books.’
But, as we soon learn, all is not as it appears with the Brunswicks.
Elsewhere, when Janet sees her ex-husband for the first time in several years, she notices how the world has beaten him down. It’s burned out the spark he once had. And, while there was always something a little sleazy about him, It’s now even more obvious.
Ted’s signature eye twinkle had mutated since she’d seen him last, having now become the bland politician’s smile – the smile of someone who knows that the bodies in the car trunk are indeed dead.
One of Coupland’s trade marks is the juxtaposition of deep thought and absurd activities. He does that in most books, and this one is no different. Through out the story he plays the Drummond men for laughs.
Janet was looking out that van’s window at Wade, tackling Brian on the terra cotta brick driveway of a Floridian muffler king. Janet thought a bit more about the muffler king and what she’d read about him on the Internet back at the library: Well, he isn’t really a muffler king, per se. He’s really more of an in-dash cigarette lighter king, or an injection-molded-vinyl-insert-that-fits-into-the-window-rolling-up-knobby-available-in-any-color king – or the king of standardized automotive snippets that can be made in one of those itty-bitty equatorial countries with no human rights or distinct regional cuisine. Mufflers? But to manufacture nothing but mufflers – an undiversified product line? How archaic. How sentimental. A formula for failure.
Ted, meanwhile, seemed to be kicking both his offspring with equal vim.
Characters in Coupland’s books often sit down with one another to talk about their self revelations or their views of the world over coffee, drinks, dinners, etc. It’s not unlike what we did in college, and seems to be one of his favorite expository techniques.
When asked about her reaction to finding out she was HIV positive, Janet tells Nickie, Ted’s new wife:
Janet sighed. ‘Let me think. Nobody’s ever asked me that.’ How have I changed? You know what? The biggest change is that I stopped believing in the future – which is to say, I stopped thinking of the future as being a place, like Paris or Australia – a place you can go to. I started believing that we’re all going, going, going all the time, but there’s no city or place at the end. We’re just going. That’s all.’
Coupland takes us into his characters thoughts of the world around them. On the state of Florida, Wade thinks:
Wade took his pill, sipped his juice and went to look out the window at the hotels and roads and cars covering Florida. Talk about a time machine.
Of all the states – even Nevada – yet again Florida struck Wade as being the one most firmly locked in the primordial past. The plants seemed cruder here, the animals more cruel and the air more dank and bacterial. He felt as if the whole landscape were resigned to the fact that in a billion more years it’d all probably be squished into petroleum.
Based on what I’ve seen of Florida, he’s probably right.
On the utopia that is Disney:
Wade was feeling dizzy. The glare and the crowds were swamping him. I’m in Walt Disney World. I never thought I’d be here, yet here I am. No newspapers. No litter. No evidence of the world outsides its borders – like a casino, really. Endless distractions. It could be 2001, it could be 1986, and it could be 2008. And all these young parents – so much younger than me – no old people save for Dad. A few bored and embarrassed teenagers. This is supposed to be life-affirming? This place is a like come cosmic dream crusher. All you can get out of a place like this is a creepy little tingle that lets you know your kid is never going to be anything more than a customer – that the whole world is being turned into a casino.
On the compromises people have to make in their lives:
Four iced teas were plunked onto the table. From his attaché case Norm removed a flask of peppermint schnapps. ‘The favored beverage of teenagers around the world. It rots my gut, but leaves my breathe minty fresh. Life is such a collection of little trade-offs.’
On the medical research community:
‘You see, fixing cancer is one thing, but fixing society is another. Curing a huge disease like cancer would effectively wipe out the insurance industry and consequently the banking system. For each year we increase the average life span, we generate a massive financial crisis. That’s what the twentieth century was about – absorbing, year by year our increased life spans.’
On world economies and totalitarianism:
‘My father always said that the fastest way to cripple any economy is to manipulate the key labor unions into striking. This invariably makes the middle class flip out, and, before you know it, boom, there’s a tyrant running the show. Anything to keep the lettuce arriving in the supermarkets on time. Cheers.’
As you can see, Coupland has some wonderful and original imagery. He paints a vivid picture of the people in his stories. He details select characters in such a way that it is easy to see them grow through the story. We even get insight into secondary characters, though he doesn’t always flesh them out.
Coupland is at his best sketching characters. His stories often create a large sandbox that he drops characters into to see what they will do. Sometimes they are completely impossible sand boxes, but they are really character platforms so it’s okay.
“All Families are Psychotic” for all its absurdity, is a straight forward story. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters come and go and evolve.
But as ridiculous as this sounds, the plot gets in the way of the story. Coupland throws in a contrived wacky, zany, criminal adventure that just seems forced. Wade even brings in his family members to the caper, apparently to bond with them. They certainly don’t need to be there. And once things get going, their continued bickering causes one silly mistake after another. And just when things seem lost, by coincidence, another family member shows up for no apparent reason and bails them out.
That may be the message of the book, but it gets buried in the sheer silliness of it. The more of a mess the plot became, the more the book annoyed me.
And that’s the problem with the book. Some wonderful writing, beautiful language use, clever juxtaposition and vivid imagery gets broken up with, and squandered by, a plot more reminiscent of a bad Abbot and Costello movie that of a good novel.